There was a stranger in Tran Athulua.
It wasn't terribly unusual, the city was a large one, a centre of Amazon court and culture, and it had its fair share of foreigners and traders who took up residence in these quarters. Those who knew, however, noticed this one immediately.
It was high summer in the Amazon Isles, anyone who could ran around in as little clothing as possible to combat the heat and humidity. The city was arboreal, there was a good stiff breeze flowing down every walkway, which combated the heat well.
Not many people, therefore, walked around in midsummer in tight leather with a thick, weighted, black cloak. It wasn't just leather, it was a curious mix, part clothing, part armour, part travelling gear.
Red leather breeches, tucked into knee high armoured boots, padded with stiff leather greaves and thigh protectors dyed midnight black. A close cut, low cut, black jerkin, with thick, heavy, shoulder guards, also of leather, leading down to silvery metal plates for upper arms, and heavy steel bracers. Thin, but gauntlet style gloves were tucked under the bracers to prevent the metal from chafing, another oddity in midsummer.
From the woven metal belt hung a few small pouches, they were tied simply, but no thief in their right mind wanted to tangle with someone who walked with such sinuous, gymnastic grace. The large, framed backpack made no hamper to this athletic vision, simply accented the fact that she was from somewhere away.
People walking down the same pathway gave the lithe goddess room to move, consciously or not, feeling the aura of impending violence in her movements, though she rarely even made eye contact with the passers-by, intent on her own internal search. Grunting, she scanned one of the larger marketplaces for a suitable establishment to slake a tremendous thirst, for she'd travelled a long way, mostly afoot, and climbing through a heavily forested jungle with a pack that weighed as much as she did was no easy task.
When she walked into the tavern it was on the tip of the barkeep's tongue to tell her to run back home to her mother, for she was certainly not old enough to be patronizing a place that served alcohol, he looked a second time, though, and curbed the impulse. She was no child.
Her upturned, almost elfin nose had been broken an inexpertly re-set at least once. Her ears had the look of a battered, back alley cat, nicked and cauliflowered from close quarter's hand to hand combat training. When her pack hit the bar floor with a muted, metallic thud, he winced from the sound of it, wagering a good gold crown that it would take him both arms to try and lift it up.
"What can I get you?" he asked, watching her lift effortlessly into a stool. Amazon's as a general rule were tall and lean, this pert little blonde was short, easily mistaken for a child, and extremely buff, the bare biceps bulging and contracting with the simplest movements.
"What's good?" her voice was surprisingly cheery, and he smiled.
"Depends on what you're in the mood for," her poor abused nose wrinkled into the most adorable expression he'd ever seen off of someone who could snap him in half with a thought.
"No beer," she said firmly, "Bad experience, enchanted beer, cave like tendencies, very not-good."
"Ok," he pulled a wine cup from under the bar, "Spring wine... light...fruity?"
"Ooo" she said happily, "Fruity."
She swung her legs out like a child, while downing the whole cup in a single drought, slammed it back down, then gave him a beseeching expression, "More?"
She took her time with this one, swivelling in her seat to people watch the mid-morning traffic.
"So what brings you to Amazon territory?" he asked casually, something about her dress, the way she moved, it was teasing the edge of his memory, but he couldn't quite pinpoint the source.
"Business, I'm afraid," her nose wrinkled again, "A pity too, it's a lovely place, and I would have wanted to spend more time here."
"Can't you take the time? It's a good place to be, if you have the right guide," he found himself flirting slightly, and grinned more at his own amusement, and was equally pleased to see that the blonde in front of him smiled back.
"I don't doubt it," she finished her drink thoughtfully; "Can you give a poor out of town girl some directions?"
"Probably," he enjoyed the banter, ignoring the niggling thought in the back of his mind that she was not all that appeared, he leaned forwards, "Where do you want to be?"
"I was told that there's a court of a kind, with a university, or something of the ilk," she batted her eyelashes at the barkeep, "Can you direct me?"
"It's a large complex, can you be a little more specific?" He'd never been to the university, but anyone in Tran Athulua knew of it.
"A Vizjerei, is there a Vizjerei?" she asked, "Some magicker?"
"There's Lady Willow, but she's Zann Esu, I don't think there' s a Vizjerei in the city right now, but people come and go, what has a fighter like yourself to do with the magickers?"
"I've a message to carry," she frowned, thoughts turning inwards, "Zann Esu, is she? That's interesting. A true sorceress?"
"True as they come, she's done battle with a dozen demons and evil things, her and Lady Tara," he spoke with pride of two of the cities most prominent citizens, "They're at home now, but every now and again they'll go haring off somewhere and we'll get word back here that they've off and killed another monstrosity."
"Well I'd best be going on," she smiled at him again, but it didn't meet her eyes, they were focused somewhere else, "Those directions?"
Later, in the calm before the lunchtime rush, a memory came flooding back to him, another lithe blonde goddess had kept company with him before he met, and eventually married his wife. She was a warrior, with tales of battles long ago fought, and enemies encountered.
"You're kidding," he joked, leaning back into the pillow, "A whole order of fighters who fight with their bare hands? Like a boxer could compete with a lovely like yourself."
"It's called Viz-Jaq'taar" her voice tripped lightly over the foreign sounding words, "And they could wrap a big hulking brute like you into a pretzel without thinking."
"And her I was thinking you were going to wrap me up," he murmured, tickling his hands lower and lower.
"Seriously, they had knives strapped to their hands like so," she mimed, "And they don't fight regular soldiers, they're Mage Slayers."
"Mage Slayers? No weapons to speak of and they go after magickers? You're pulling my leg."
"I am not," she teased, "I've seen grown men blanch at the very mention of a Slayer, I saw one once... silken red, black leather, steel... it was very sexy."
"Hey-y-y" he successful 'diverted' her attention back to what he was doing, "I got a sexy piece of steel right here..."
A flood of ice tripped down at the realization, he'd just given directions to a Mage Slayer. She was heading for Lady Willow's workplace right now. He had to do something. With shaky hands he left one of the busboys in charge of the bar, everyone knew where in the city they could find Lady Tara, Willow's partner.
Tara was seated, as was her custom, in one of the gardens of the Temple of Athulua. She was working on a drawing, not one of 'her' drawings; people were expected to come by here and she wasn't about to share that much of her girl with the world.
She had her pencils with her, working on a rather large bit of parchment. It was a rendering of Willow, of course, in the city of the tribesmen of Bul-Kathos, Harrogath. She was ecstatic, happily swirling the snow with the barest hint of magic, in her element, literally.
Trying patiently to capture the expression on her beloved face she was overcome with concentration that when her modest tracker skills, left unused for the past year or so, came suddenly to alert, she upset her supplies all over the freshly watered bed of flowers.
The parchment was ruined, about to give the man who bowled her over a solid piece of her mind, she stopped mid scold at the expression on his face. A few minutes later her face was as parchment pale, and she was racing as fast as she could for the university, one thought drove her: rescuing Willow.
For someone who was the sole thought of so many, Lady Willow, Sorceress of the Zann Esu, Knight Lioness of the Realm of Westmarch, and one of the leading elementalists in the world, was currently stymied by her cat, Duchess, and the feline's sudden swelling to nearly twice her weight, with an accompanying lazy torpor.
"Duchess, don't make me have to take you to the temple again, it was bad enough when you got into that fight with that nasty tomcat and I had to have you patched up, but really..." she had her hands on her hips, lecturing the prone animal.
"You do realise she won't speak back," an amused, cheerful voice bounced off the honey pine walls of the 'mage tower', which was nothing more than a spiralled series of rooms around the trunk of a particularly large tree. "Right?"
"Well... I guess, but it would make my life easier," Willow turned around, seeing the blonde, she rose from her crouch, now blocking the narrow stairway "Uh, did you want me to move?"
"Why don't we start with, 'Hi, I'm Buffy,' and then let's segue directly into me asking you for a favour." The blonde grinned widely, "You must be the Sorceress, it's Willow, right?"
"Yup, that's me, Sorcer-o gal, cold chick extraordinaire, winger of the wild wintry icicles of doom..." she trailed off, "Sorry I kinda... babble."
"It's ok," the blonde, Buffy, Willow's mind categorized, unbuckled two straps, one across her chest, the other from around her hips, then dropped a backpack with an audible 'thud', "Um, I have a letter for you, and I'm actually kind of curious, 'cause I don't see too many Sorceresses in my line of work."
"Oh, alright," Willow watched as Buffy pulled a cylindrical scroll-case out of a side pocket of her pack, "Well we're not that common, out and about y'know, well more common that we were, I mean before the Reckoning, it was a secret thing then so there was like, no Sorceresses at all, but now that we're all out and everything... Tara!"
She was used to seeing her beloved with a bow, so much so, that the fact it was out and in her hands wasn't as startling as Tara would have hoped. The arrow that she snap nocked and fired, however, was noticed by both Willow and the Viz-Jaq'taar. The short blonde rolled mostly out of the way, but Tara's determination to injure was greater. Calling on her goddess the arrow twisted with the assassin and embedded deep into her shoulder, exploding into a messy mixture of bloody burnt leather.
"Hey!" Willow shouted, for once really annoyed with the love of her life, "What are you doing?"
"She's an assassin, get away!" Tara nocked and readied another arrow, standing over the prone body of the other woman, ready to deal a final blow.
"Wait!" Willow shouted, grabbing Tara's bow arm, "Who's a what? And... eww, we need to get her to a temple, she's bleeding too much."
The low moan reminded Tara that the mage-slayer was still alive; she pulled the bowstring, let slack while Willow was talking. Then she released it with a sigh, Willow was right, but the blind rage she felt when she heard the threat to her lover was still pumping through her heart.
"Lemme... Yes! She's got potions, hold her head, quick," Willow uncorked the delicate phial of healing potion, and pinched the blonde's nose, forcing her to open her mouth. "This is going to hurt."
Buffy, barely hanging on to consciousness, swallowed obediently, but then the potion kicked in and she flung her head into the Amazon's lap, back arcing uncontrollably as the pain coursed through her slim form. It was too much, her eyes rolled back and she blacked out.